The COVID pandemic has revealed the importance of adequate social protection and its role in safeguarding the wellbeing and security of our families, communities and economy.
As Australia charts its way out of the environmental and pandemic crises of 2020, households continue to face numerous and diverse challenges as they negotiate their work, care, and family responsibilities. These challenges will intensify as emergency measures — including income support implemented by state and federal governments — are rolled back. New policy architecture that moves Australia beyond crisis and resets the conditions under which we work and care is urgently needed.
Care is essential to human wellbeing and economic prosperity. High quality care — both paid and unpaid — enables the development of human capabilities, wellbeing, and economic productivity. Inadequate investment in care services and supports, uneven coverage of paid leave for workers in casual and precarious employment, and low wages for the essential workers who keep our communities functioning, weaken our economy. Inadequate care infrastructure leaves communities vulnerable and exacerbates inequalities. The environmental and health crises of 2020 highlighted that — without adequate paid and unpaid care — the economy stops.
Care has important social and economic benefits in the short and long term. It is not a private consumer good for the well-off, or a commodity to be produced for profit. However, many of Australia’s essential care services are delivered through private for-profit markets backed by large government subsidies. This model has not served Australians well. Accompanied by limited resources, ineffective regulation, and meagre quality standards — as well as inadequate governance arrangements — many services deliver sub-standard care. The COVID pandemic has exposed the false economy of reliance on an under-resourced, precarious, and low-wage workforce.
Care is a collective social responsibility. However, the limited social provision of care and inadequate resourcing of formal and informal care, has meant the burden of care has been unfairly distributed with women shouldering the greatest load. Better social provisioning of care services will help alleviate gender and other social inequalities. Policy settings must be reconfigured to invest in the both paid and unpaid care that sustains individuals over the life course and delivers wellbeing and long-term prosperity for all. We need a caring economy.
Governments have a vital role to play in providing increased and sustained investment in equitable, high-quality care systems that include decent wages and secure employment for the care workforce, and equitable access to paid leave for all workers. Only public investment in high-quality care infrastructure, in combination with strong supports for individuals who take on unpaid care work, and appropriate regulatory and governance arrangements, can address the diverse needs of individuals and families on an equitable basis.
The tax and transfer system can play a vital role in delivering sustainable finance for public investment in care infrastructure and expenditure on care work, and in ensuring equitable and efficient access by individuals to market work. A sustainable and equitable tax and transfer system will apply on the basis of an individual unit and reduce, as far as possible, the inequitable and inefficient disincentives for women to engage in paid work.
Tax reforms should ensure that those with higher incomes continue to contribute a greater share of tax revenues through progressive tax rates, while tax reform to broaden the base of the income tax will enable more equitable taxation of capital income compared to work. This will ensure sustainable revenues while not over-taxing low and moderate wage earners — many of whom are women who work in the care sector.
Investment in high-quality care infrastructure will enhance macro-economic stability and grow our economy. Good quality care services support employment, labour supply, and economic security — particularly for women. An expanded, secure, and properly paid labour force will help build public finances through the collection of extra tax revenue. The capability of children, youth, worker-carers, older people, and people with disabilities to fully participate in society and lead fulfilling lives will be enhanced and supported by investment in essential care infrastructure. This will improve social wellbeing whilst also delivering increased productivity and economic growth to enable Australia to grow our way out of the pandemic-induced recession.
The environmental and pandemic crises of 2020 have exposed and amplified widespread labour market inequalities. In particular, COVID-19 has exposed the structural inequalities within the Australian labour market and the vulnerability of millions of workers — particularly those in retail and hospitality. Conditions of precarious employment, low wages, and insecurity — along with inadequate social protection measures — left millions in the hardest-hit industries vulnerable to emergency lockdown measures and ensuing economic insecurity.
Lack of adequate income protection, paid sick leave, and carers’ leave further entrenched worker vulnerability. Those in regular employment with higher wages and paid leave were less exposed to the economic impact of the sudden lockdown, although the rapid shift to working-from-home placed other significant stresses on workers.
The crises have had a disproportionate impact on women’s paid and unpaid work, but have fallen most severely on single mothers, women from migrant backgrounds (especially those on temporary visas), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, and women with disability. The majority of Australian women work in part-time or insecure jobs, often in highly feminised and low-paid occupations. Precarious forms of employment do not provide adequate support for workers with care responsibilities and many women have struggled to manage the triple pandemic demands of supervising home-schooling, increased care responsibilities and paid work. This has led to widespread exhaustion and other health issues.
During the COVID-19 crisis, women have experienced higher rates of unemployment and underemployment than men. They are also disproportionately employed in essential frontline care jobs where they have been exposed to infection. How men and women fare over the long recession ahead is yet to be seen. But even at this stage of the economic downturn, the lack of minimum paid care and sick leave for workers in precarious employment along with inadequate access to affordable care services has seen women disproportionately withdraw from the labour market. This directly reflects and reinforces gendered inequalities in work and care and increases the risk of poverty for women as they age.
Men with children increased their unpaid care load, but not as much as women did, and current workplace policy settings do not make it easy for households to share care between women and men. Policy architecture that relies on the exploitation of women’s labour and time in the workplace and in the home, and the feminisation of poverty and inequality this gives rise to, is inefficient and discriminatory and can no longer be tolerated.
The pandemic has revealed the importance of decent work and adequate social protection, and their role in safeguarding the wellbeing and security of our families, communities, and economy. This includes adequate pay, secure working time and paid-leave provisions — such as paid parental leave, carers’ leave, paid domestic violence leave and other forms of leave from work — that support women and men’s equal right to combine family and community care responsibilities with stable and secure employment.
Adequate social protection over the life course is also crucial. Temporary social protection provided during the peak of the pandemic through additional income support made a material difference to many worker-carers’ lives. However, these measures also excluded many of the most vulnerable, including many casual workers and those on temporary visas.
A new social contract that recognises and supports the interconnections of work and care across society and the economy is urgently required. Our ageing population, declining fertility rates, and low in-bound migration, make a new policy architecture for decent work and decent care essential for an inclusive and gender equal recovery. It is time to look beyond short-term budgets and toward long-term investment in a caring economy that delivers prosperity, equality, and a better life for all.